Just Read: Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood – memoir of a young trans woman

There have been a lot of great reviews of this bestseller published, mine is a read from the perspective of a physician, trans* ally, supportive of equitable health care for all.

As the title says, this is a memoir of a young woman, Janet Mock (@JanetMock) formerly a staff editor at People.com, now (today) starting her own show at MSNBC – “Shift” (@ShiftMSNBC). I wanted to learn about the journey of a trans woman, and also to celebrate what we call “positive exemplars” – the people who change perception of what a ____ (name your population) is supposed to be. 

“Oh. This is a story of a woman growing up.”

That’s what I said to myself when I finished the book.

Clearly people are going to be interested in the portion of Janet’s life that is about transition, and she does a nice job throughout to convey important information about the social, medical, scientific millieu of being a transgender person. However, she tells the story of a young woman raised in challenging environments, in Honolulu, Dallas, and Oakland:

…plugging people into the “transition” narrative (which I have been subjected to) erases the nuance of experience, the murkiness of identity, and the undeniable influence of race, class, and gender. It’s no coincidence that the genre of memoir from trans people has been dominated by those with access, mainly white trans men and women, and these types of disparities greeted me head-on when I stepped forward publicly.

I was specifically taken by her description of growing up in Oakland, California, when the crack epidemic hit. It describes a drug that consumed people, not the other way around, and is so similar and impressive to a story told a continent away, in Ruben Castaneda’s (@RCastanedaWP) “S Street Rising,” about Washington, DC.

When we talk today about “social determinants of health” and individual behavior, there’s something here that seems a bit beyond what an individual family or person can control:

“How much you pay Charlie?” the man asked John. I had to stop everything inside of me from saying that Dad did not get paid to tend to John’s car. He was no one’s employee; he did it because he was John’s friend and he loved the Caddy as if it were his own. “He loves that car, man,” John said, calming my defenses. I knew he knew my father and appreciated his work. “But,” John continued , “I feel sorry for him, you know. He’s a crackhead. I give him twenty bucks here, another there.” I turned my head toward Dad, who was polishing away at a rim. Beads of sweat ran from his hairline to the lines of his forehead as he bobbed his head to a tune only he could hear. In one instant, Dad was . . . a crackhead.

and

I vividly remember the routine sight of a baby girl wearing a soiled diaper, playing with an equally dirty doll on her lawn. No parent or sibling in sight. She would just cry and cry and cry. No one asked, “Where’s her mama?” Her wailing became the background vocals to our double-Dutch anthems , kind of like the barely heard baby yelps in Aaliyah’s song “Are You That Somebody?” In addition to the baby girl, I saw stray dogs and crack vials on my way to school. But crack’s reach went beyond those vials we skipped over. When Maddy’s mom, who would beg the boys on the corner for “some stuff,” passed away of AIDS complications, I hugged my friend good-bye: Maddy and Aisha moved to San José to begin a better life with their mother’s sister.

I did a little research on the crack epidemic as part of this – it’s not clear exactly how it ended. Maybe through the actions of people like Janet’s father who moved away from Oakland, or Ruben Castaneda, who was hospitalized by his employer, the Washington Post, it just stopped tearing through people.

I think this woman’s (Janet’s) is important because it’s not about the loving middle class parents who recognize differences and from whence viral videos come from:

To be frank, these stories are best-case scenarios, situations I hope become the norm for every young trans person in our society. But race and class are not usually discussed in these positive media portraits…

Being a woman

There’s a helpful discussion about what it means to be a woman, a trans woman. I have seen people make comments that people who are trans somehow have a responsibility to identify themselves as such.

It is not a woman’s duty to disclose that she’s trans to every person she meets. This is not safe for a myriad of reasons. We must shift the burden of coming out from trans women, and accusing them of hiding or lying, and focus on why it is unsafe for women to be trans.

I agree. In the scope of human relations, why is it important to know someone’s sex at birth, or their sexual orientation before puberty for that matter (which is a different issue than gender, to be clear)? Why not appreciate people for what they are today? It’s hard enough for any person to do that for themselves, we don’t need to make it more difficult.

Getting Health Care

khun krap, Miss Janet,” he thanked me in Thai, reaching for my hands. “I want to thank you for trusting me to help you in this next step of your life. It’s a blessing that I get to make people like you more happy.

It’s amazing to think that an important part of the LGBT population needs to to go Thailand to be treated with compassion by the medical profession. It’s what they call in some circles “reverse innovation” – that the best ideas don’t start in the United States.

Considering the world she grew up in, she seems incredibly fortunate to have found an endocrinologist in Hawaii that listened and prescribed her hormones.

Not all trans people come of age in supportive middle- and upper-middle-class homes, where parents have resources and access to knowledgeable and affordable health care that can cover expensive hormone-blocking medications and necessary surgeries. These best-case scenarios are not the reality for most trans people, regardless of age.

The other thing this population is also forced into is sex work, not by choice, but by poverty, not just to pay for excluded medical care, but to manage a society that discriminates in employment. Janet openly discusses this part of her life. And then, at some point she transitions from a girl to a woman, with an academic degree, a profession, and the ability to achieve her life goals through optimal health. Just like every woman should.

A world away, except that it isn’t

We can read these stories and say to ourselves, “wow, so far away from my experience,” except this distance is based on choices we make.

I reflect on the fact that while Janet’s community was being devastated by crack cocaine, I was receiving an A+ education just a few miles away, at UC Berkeley, in Public Health. The Oakland freeways at the time were a little confusing to me, and a few times I took a wrong turn and probably drove through Janet’s neighborhood in a confused an anxious state, as I looked at the streets on either side of me. The same was true of my existence the following year in Washington, DC – just a few blocks away from neighborhoods spiraling out of control with deadly violence (I’ll post on that next week).

We can say that was a long time ago, except that those parallel worlds still exist today, wherever we are. We have a responsibility to know that they exist, and work to make them less hostile, or we’ll just say in another 20 years, “I had no idea that was going on a few miles away.”

From that perspective I’m grateful for the Janet Mock’s, the Ruby Corado’s (@CasaRubyDC) , and all the people I share a city and community with who are willing to teach so that the people who will come after them will have better lives. Because that’s what Janet says, it’s what Ruby says as well – “you know, I can take this, but the kids coming out deserve better.” They do. 

I was fortunate to see Janet Mock live when she was in Washington, DC when the book was published. She appeared at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, with an audience sitting under a mural of MLK’s legacy including the signs of people during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike that said “I AM a Man.”

How appropriate for Janet Mock to be speaking to us about being a woman, then 🙂 . Photos from that event below. Thanks again for changing the way we think about women and providing a helpful resource for people to improve their compassion skills.

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